Commentary Magazine


The Deportations

The Israeli maxim, “Only Likud can make peace and only Labor can conduct a successful war,” had to be amended last December to include, “Only a Leftist coalition can effect a large deportation of Palestinians.” For if it is virtually impossible to imagine the enormity of the backlash to a Likud government’s taking such a step, it is because under Likud the step itself would simply have been unthinkable. Likud knew that massive deportations would have caused not only an unprecedented international whirlwind but gigantic domestic demonstrations; the Knesset would have been reduced to a battleground, and the media would have branded the government a gang of fascist, “transferist” madmen.

Under Labor, however, the domestic response to the deportation from the administered territories of some 400 leading activists of the Islamic fundamentalist organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad was a stunning display of unanimity. A poll taken immediately after the expulsion showed over 90 percent of the population supporting the government’s action. A few leftist activists and the tiny Peace Now movement were vehemently opposed to the deportations, which only went to show once again how divorced they are from the national consensus. So too with the vast majority of commentators. Their opposition to the expulsion was another indication, if one were needed, that the Israeli media do not represent the Israeli public.

As for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, his popularity increased, and the leftist Meretz ministers serving under him—people like Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid—were not about to risk losing power by defying him. By mid-January, ten out of eighteen members of his government coalition—including several Labor and all the Meretz ministers—were prepared to compromise and allow the deportees to return. Yet none would say so publicly.

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In taking the drastic, unprecedented step of massive expulsion, Rabin was to some extent driven by the psychological syndrome which in the Bush administration’s pre-Desert Storm days was called the “wimp factor.”

Pressured by the super-doves within his government, Rabin had made various substantive gestures to the Palestinians and the Arab regimes. The most dramatic was the freeze on the building of new homes in Jewish settlements in the administered territories and on Jewish acquisitions in most of the old city of Jerusalem. But these gestures were reciprocated on the Arab side with bolder terrorist activities and greater intransigence at the negotiating table. Even the permission granted Syrian Jews to emigrate, the one concrete achievement of the talks with Syria—attained, incidentally, under Likud—was rescinded.

In addition to being offended by this Arab response, Rabin—a military man whose reputation for security consciousness was what had enabled Labor to win the June elections—grew particularly perturbed by the success of Hamas against Israeli security forces. Within two weeks, six uniformed Israelis, both soldiers and police, were killed (as compared with a total of 26 members of the armed forces killed by Palestinians throughout the intifada). This was no longer terrorism against hapless civilians but a challenge to Israel’s ability to keep armed soldiers alive. That is why, when a Border Patrol officer named Nissim Toledano was kidnapped and then murdered despite the government’s declared willingness to negotiate with the kidnappers, Rabin felt he had to take decisive action.

To his surprise, he encountered no resistance in the “dovecote” which makes up his cabinet. Yet he should not have been surprised. That his Meretz partners were willing to throw their own principles overboard had already been demonstrated by the relentless ardor with which they had been catering to the whims of their coalition partners, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. And Rabin should have known that as long as the Islamic fundamentalists, who openly oppose negotiating with Israel, could be portrayed as an obstacle to peace, Meretz’s fierce opposition to all expulsions would probably give way to its fetishistic attitude toward the peace process.

Furthermore, the Meretz leaders are not merely anti-Hamas; they are pro-PLO. And they were convinced that by exiling Hamas organizers and inciters they were performing a service for the PLO, an organization they believe should be Israel’s interlocutor in the peace talks. (When asked in the Knesset what would happen if a Palestinian state were to fall into the hands of Hamas, one Meretz member said: “This won’t happen, we’ll have a defense pact with the PLO”!)

Indeed, the chairman of the PLO, Yasir Arafat himself, had hinted in an interview with an Italian newspaper a few weeks before the expulsion that he thought Israel should treat Hamas more harshly. After all, Hamas’s success in killing Israeli soldiers was making it the hero of the Arab street and challenging the PLO’s title as “the sole representative of the Palestinian people.”

The Meretz position was buttressed by an intelligence assessment which assured the government that the PLO, while pretending otherwise in its rhetoric, would tacitly applaud the expulsion, and that the peace talks would resume. In fact, Meretz said that the expulsion could serve as a springboard for a leap forward in the peace talks if Israel, after punishing the Hamas “rejectionists,” would reward the “moderates” by recognizing the PLO and conducting direct talks with it. To this end Meretz proposed, and by mid-January succeeded in, repealing the law which prohibited unauthorized contacts with PLO officials.

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To conclude that Hamas was the enemy of peace while the PLO was ardently pursuing it, Israeli doves had to do some tricky intellectual somersaults. True, the two organizations are competitors for Palestinian loyalties and Saudi subsidies, but to draw a line between the “evil” Hamas and the “moderate” PLO is to indulge in sophistry.

The Hamas Islamic covenant—directed more generally at Jews than at Israel—may be worded more offensively than the PLO charter, but the goal of both is the destruction of Israel. Hamas is honest—or unsophisticated—in making this goal known, whereas the PLO, committed to the 1974 “phased plan” for Israel’s destruction, has adopted the rhetoric of peace. Even so, the PLO proxy in Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini, speaking in Amman last December, talked of using the stratagem of peace to effect the gradual disintegration of the “Zionist entity.” And while it was a flurry of Hamas activity which precipitated the expulsion, the truth is that Fatah, Arafat’s own faction within the PLO, still does more killing—both of Jews and of Palestinians—than any other organization.

Nor is Hamas the only “rejectionist” Palestinian organization. There were ten major terrorist groups assembled in Damascus last September to plan the war against the peace negotiations. In addition to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the others included such members in good standing of the PLO as the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Ahmad Jibril group, the Abul Abbas group, and other PLO constituents. Yet Israeli leftists would most surely object to the expulsion of any of their leaders from the administered territories.

Nor should the antagonism between Hamas and the “mainstream” PLO be exaggerated. There has always been greater cooperation between them than is generally known. Arafat is himself a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the PLO’s pragmatic, secular image is the result mostly of successful public relations. It has been convenient for both organizations to play “good cop/bad cop” for the media.

In expecting tacit PLO approval of the move against Hamas, the Rabin government obviously failed to take into account that extremist actions against Israel are never censured in the Arab world. That Israeli soldiers were being killed by the same kind of fundamentalists who threaten the stability of Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and even Syria and Lebanon, meant absolutely nothing. The Arab press, from Jordan to Algeria to Saudi Arabia, rejoiced in the death of Israelis and unequivocally praised their killers. As the Mideast Mirror (December 16, 1992) put it:

The murder of Israeli Border Policeman Nissim Toledano [was applauded] as a natural and commendable reaction to Israeli occupation and terrorism.

The joy of the Arab world at the killing of Israelis was matched by its outrage at the expulsion of Hamas’s organizational infrastructure. The semi-official Egyptian Al-Ahram published a cartoon of a large Rabin and a dwarfish Yitzhak Shamir with swastika armbands yelling “Out!” at a multitude of blindfolded Palestinians. Ironically, this was a week after the same paper published an interview with President Hosni Mubarak in which he vowed to crush fundamentalist terrorism. Asked about the death by hanging and the long prison sentences to which a military tribunal in Alexandria had sentenced some of these terrorists, Mubarak answered:

We referred the case of the extremists to a military tribunal because litigation before civilian courts is slow. We are facing a situation where delay and procrastination are unacceptable. I simply exercised my powers. And this is better than taking illegitimate action.

The Israeli government not only failed to understand the visceral sympathy the killing of Jews evoked in the Arab world; it did not foresee its operational implications. Though nominally supportive of the peace process, the PLO had to prove that it was just as militant as the fundamentalists by promptly convening a “reconciliation” meeting with Hamas in Khartoum, the capital of fundamentalist Sudan. The conclave declared that the two groups would collaborate in intensifying the intifada.

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Yet the Israeli miscalculations did not change the fact that in the war against terrorism, deportation—even for a period not longer than two years, as was originally decreed in this case—is by far the most effective anti-terrorist weapon a democratic society can employ. Detention has proved useless: terrorist leaders and organizers have been able to direct terrorist activities from prison with astonishing efficacy. And the death penalty, even if accepted on moral grounds, would prove counterproductive: it would diminish the incentive of terrorists to surrender and invite kidnappings to effect the release of the convicted. Indeed, the near-paralysis in Hamas activities following the expulsion was palpable proof of the effectiveness of the move. Not until the end of January—a full six weeks later—did one Hamas unit finally manage to stage an operation, ambushing and killing two Israeli soldiers.

Some opposition politicians and several observers criticized the way the expulsion was carried out. But given the bad weather—which prevented loading the deportees on helicopters and dispersing them—and the very short notice, designed to prevent intervention by what Rabin termed “so-called human-rights organizations,” the army performed well. With hindsight, Rabin admitted that it would have been wiser to wait for the weather to clear and to deposit the deportees in small groups throughout Lebanon.

But here, too, there was a serious miscalculation on the part of the intelligence services. Misled by the Syrian smiles at the Washington talks, the chief of army intelligence—an incorrigible optimist about the possibility of making peace with Syria—failed to foresee the Syrian veto on Lebanon’s acceptance of the deportees.

Acutely aware of the propaganda value of having 400 Palestinians stranded on a barren stretch of “no man’s land” during the Christmas season (and, conversely, of the difficulty in retaining media interest if they were welcomed by Lebanon), the Syrians prevented their puppet government in Beirut from taking the deportees. When some sick deportees were allowed into a Lebanese hospital, Syria forced Beirut to kick them out and return them to the camp on the freezing hills.

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This was hardly the first time Arabs have been mistreated by their brethren. Forcing Palestinians to live in camps and exploiting their hardship for propaganda purposes has been Arab policy for 45 years. Nor was the media reaction unexpected. With virtually no exception, the media ignored the reasons for the expulsion and concentrated on pictures of the 400 relegated to “yet another refugee camp” by Israel. None asked why Syria and its puppet regime in Beirut refused to give them shelter.

The condemnation by the UN was also to be expected. To repeat the familiar litany of injustices such habitual condemnations of Israel involve is by now almost tiresome. Neither the UN nor the European Community voiced the slightest disapproval when not 400 but 300,000 Palestinians—the vast majority not terrorists but innocent victims of vindictive revenge—were expelled from Kuwait after the Gulf war. Nor did either body protest the expulsion of Turks from Bulgaria; or the various transfers of ethnic groups in the former USSR; or the forced exodus of millions in Africa.

To Israelis, however, world censure was less important than the knowledge that Arab terrorism had been dealt a serious blow. Three weeks after the deportation, Israel television showed a video film made by Hamas in Gaza. Its hero was Dr. Abdul-Aziz Rantisi, who by then was familiar to viewers of international news networks as the spokesman of the deportees in Lebanon. But in the film, Rantisi displayed neither the reasonable manner nor the pious tone seen and heard by millions watching the deportees’ travails. Railing to a Gaza mob with the virulent passion of a fanatic demagogue, he called for death: the death of Israel, the death of Jews, and even the death by martyrdom of his own disciples in the jihad against the infidels. Uniformed armed men, marching, singing, shouting, and calling for Israel’s destruction, served as a counterpoint.

Clearly, the precipitous return of Rantisi and his followers, as demanded by the UN, would pass a death sentence on an untold number of Israelis and Palestinians.

Fortunately, no such outcome was prescribed by the compromise reached in early February between Rabin and Secretary of State Warren Christopher (a deal that was struck in order to lessen international pressure and to avert the need for a U.S. veto of a possible Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Israel). If this compromise were accepted by the Palestinians, the worst offenders among the 400 deportees would remain in exile for at least another year (instead of two), even though 100 of the lesser ones would be returned immediately. In general, then, the impact of the expulsion was weakened, but not destroyed, by the Rabin-Christopher deal.

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Despite the overwhelming support in Israel for the deportation, the unanimous international insistence that it represented a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, to which Israel is a signatory, made many Israelis uneasy. That the exclusive application of the convention to Israel was yet another odious display of the double standard did not ameliorate this feeling.

The Fourth Geneva Convention stipulates that

Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited.

Yet as many eminent authorities on international law—including the late Julius Stone, Eugene V. Rostow, and Yehuda Blum—have pointed out, the Convention simply does not apply here.

Thus, Professor Blum, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the UN, has shown that deportation conforms both to domestic and international law. In all the administered territories, Regulation 112 of the Defense (Emergency) Regulations of 1945, enacted at the time by the British Mandatory Power and providing for the possibility of expulsions, is still the law in force. Both the Hague Regulation of 1907 and the Fourth Geneva Convention oblige the occupying power to respect the law in force in the occupied territory. “Consequently,” says Blum,

in expelling certain individuals from Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, Israel is in fact applying the law in force in these territories.

And indeed, in late January, the Israeli Supreme Court (whose integrity has never been questioned by anyone and which has often ruled against the government) upheld the deportations as legal.

But quite apart from any legal technicalities, there is the unanswerable argument advanced by Professor Stone in 1969:

It seems reasonable to limit the sweeping literal words of Article 49 [of the Fourth Geneva Convention] to situations at least remotely similar to those contemplated by the draftsmen, namely the Nazi World War II practices of large-scale transfers of populations, whether by mass transfer or transfer of many individuals, to more hostile or dangerous environments, for torture, extermination, or slave labor. Israel’s policy of selective expulsion of a relatively small number of individuals involved in acts of violence and terrorism certainly cannot be likened, even by the widest stretch of the imagination, to the Nazi deportation practices of World War II.

It is not easy for democracies to fight wars. Free societies have built-in vulnerabilities which war—an intrinsically undemocratic effort—exposes and accentuates. This is particularly true when the war is not an all-out military confrontation but an undeclared, “low-intensity” campaign of terrorism. Democracies, dedicated to human rights and due process, have yet to find an effective response to this scourge.

Israel probably has more experience in fighting terrorism than any other country. Yet like all democracies, Israel has found it easier to take drastic measures when confronted with a regular army than to curb freedoms in the war against terror gangs. But sometimes Israel has no choice. Israel is not Spain fighting the national aspirations of the Basques; it is not Britain battling the IRA; it is not France of the 1960’s suppressing a national uprising in an overseas colony. Israel is fighting for survival.

The fact that the most massive expulsion in Israel’s history has been ordered by the most dovish government in its history indicates that even the most dogmatic political philosophy must defer to reality. It has also taught Israelis, and perhaps others, that it was not former Prime Minister Shamir’s “intransigence” and hard-line policies which were the obstacles to peace, but the relentless Arab war against Israel’s existence.

The world’s censure of the deportations reminded many of the international response to Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. It took nine years for others to recognize that bombing as a prescient contribution to world peace. The action against Hamas is not unlike that raid, for Islamic fundamentalism constitutes the greatest incipient danger in the world today. Israel may be a prime target of Islamic fundamentalism, but it is not the only one. The new fanaticism, soon to be equipped with nuclear weapons, threatens the stability of virtually every country from North Africa to Indonesia. It is to this danger, rather than to condemning Israel for combating terrorism, that the world should now be addressing itself.

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